Farmers want subsidised GM cotton seeds to revive sector

GM cotton seeds expensive but returns are high; subsidies won't last indefinitely

In Summary

• 10,000 farmers currently growing Bt cotton; about 16 metric tonnes of cotton seeds have been distributed to farmers since March 2020.

• National production is 3,495 metric tonnes of seed cotton; area under cotton by 2020 was 9,987ha (26,678 acres) from 18,000ha (44,478 acres) in 2019.

Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation employees in a field for BT cotton at Kimbimbi in Mwea where trials have been underway.
GM COTTON: Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation employees in a field for BT cotton at Kimbimbi in Mwea where trials have been underway.

Cotton farmers have urged the government to subsidise genetically modified cotton seeds due to high cost.

Farmer Francis Opallo in Teso South, Busia county, said Bt cotton is high yielding and he has been able to reduce the cost of pesticides.  

“A farmer can get between 80 to 100 balls in one Bt tree, unlike the conventional variety that could produce 20 to 25 balls, or even as low as 10," he told the Star.

Opallo said, however, few farmers can afford the seedlings at  Sh2,300 a kilo. He urged the government provide the seedlings to farmers on credit, which will attract more farmers.

Farmers will repay after they harvest and sell their cotton.

At this time, seeds are subsidised but the government cannot afford to continue and will look to the private sector to help revive the cotton sector.

A kilo of seeds is enough to plant one acre and despite the high cost of seeds, the returns are worth it if the crop is managed well.

During the March-April-May season, Opallo said he planted a handful of the Bt cotton seeds on a small area and harvested 94kg, earning Sh4,700.

He said a kilo is selling for Sh50 in the local market but they are from Uganda where they sell for Sh60 to Sh70 per kilo.

“I have now planted almost three quarters of my land land and I am expecting at least more than Sh30,000,” Opallo said.

Agriculture PS Hamadi Boga said despite their price of Sh2,300 per kilo, these are high-quality seeds unlike the ones farmers are planting.


The government is now providing 100 per cent subsidy, But going forward, the private sector will provide support to the farmers through contracts, PS Boga said.

"This is quality seed that will give a farmer higher yields, they are also guaranteed to save on the cost of pesticides as they need less.

"This is because the most destructive pest, the cotton boll worm, is managed by the plant so you don’t expect it to be cheap. The cost of other inputs will be lower and the returns are higher,” Boga said.

The PS confirmed farmers are not incurring the cost of seedlings as the government is buying and giving seeds to them.

The government is now providing 100 per cent subsidy but going forward, the private sector will provide support to the farmers through contracts, he said.

"The only bottleneck is making the seeds available and the government is only able to provide a limited amount of seeds," the PS said.

National production is was 3,495 metric tonnes of seed cotton by 2020, and the area under cotton by 2020 is 9,987ha (26,678 acres) from 18,000ha (44,478 acres)

However, 6,196 bales of 185kg of cotton lint were produced in 2020, valued at Sh206 million. This is an increase from 5,432 bales produced in 2019, valued at Sh190 million.

“So far, 10,000 farmers are growing Bt cotton and since last year, we have distributed 16 metric tonnes of cotton seeds. The challenges we are facing in Bt cotton is late delivery and attack by mealybugs,” he said.

On December 20, 2019, the Cabinet approved commercialisation of GM cotton.

In March 2020, the Agriculture ministry started distributing the first batch of the GM cotton seeds to farmers in Western and Nyanza region to plant in the long rains season.

George Muteti Ndavihas planted the new variety on a four-acre farm. 

A Kitui resident on her Bt cotton farm in Chuluni.
HIGH YIELD: A Kitui resident on her Bt cotton farm in Chuluni.

He is chairman of Mûtitû Andei Cotton Farmers Cooperative and a member of the Societies for the Biotechnology Farming in Kenya 

Ndavi said despite receiving the seeds late and the rains being inadequate, the Bt cotton performed better than the conventional variety they were used to.

"I saw a very big difference with this new variety because  it's fast growing, high yielding and is not getting infected by pests, as compared with the conventional cotton," Ndavi said.

Veteran cotton farmer Milton Katia in Mavindini, Kathonzweni subcounty in Makueni, said the new Bt cotton has many branches. That means for every plant a farmer can harvest as many as 100 balls. In the past, they only harvested 30 balls at most, he said.

"We are grateful for Bt cotton because the previous  variety had been used for 30 years and was exhausted," he said. In his first planting of Bt cotton, he harvested 1,050 bags.

Katia praised the government for setting a standard price rate of cotton, ensuring farmers can sell at the farm gate.

“We sell at the farm gate for Sh52 and we are paid instantly,” he said.

He said the county should employ more agricultural extension officers to train farmers on the right techniques for growing Bt cotton.

In the past, farmers had extension officers in each location and a district extension officer in each district.

"These days there are not enough extension officers who can reach out to farmers and we have been left on our own, Katia said. 

Margaret Karembu is a director of the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

She said Kenya is among seven African countries growing Bt cotton, including Ethiopia, Sudan, Swaziland, Nigeria, South Africa and Malawi. 

Speaking during a virtual forum on agricultural biotechnology, Karembu said Bt cotton was first commercialised 25 years ago.

In 2020, Bt cotton was being grown by 18 countries on more than 25 million hectares (61,776,345 acres).

Kenya is one of the latest countries to adopt Bt cotton, growing almost 11.9 million hectares (29,405,540 acres).

“However, many countries in Africa are still in the debate mode on the crop that is genetically improved and resistant to the bollworm,” Karembu said.

Solomon Odera of the Agriculture and Food Authority said though cotton is being grown in 24 counties, there are only four operating ginneries in Meru, Makueni, Kitui and Salawa.

Kenya has only three spinning and weaving mills producing garments and other textile products.

Odera is director in charge of the Fibre Crops Directorate.

At Kenya's peak of cotton production, there were 24 ginneries. Most collapsed because of low productivity, high production costs and marketing inefficiencies.

Odera said the government is improving cotton production and reviving ginning mills.

It is introducing superior varieties of Bt cotton and hybris, establishing a certified seed system, building modern cotton gin factories.

It is also promoting production contracts and zoning, establishing price stabilisation mechanisms and improving extension services, Odera said.

In addition, the government is investing in energy-efficient solutions. It is also empowering farmers to own the primary level of the cotton value chain — ginning and seed milling— through cooperatives and quality-based pricing.

“We have also introduced cluster farming and so far we have six clusters in different counties. We hope each cluster can have a ginnery, he said.

(Edited by V. Graham)

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